Principles can be tricky things sometimes, can’t they – so let’s see how you feel about this one: Horrible people have exactly the same rights as nice people.
They have the right to freedom of speech – even if they are sleazebags.
They have the right to a fair trial – even if they have spent several years trying to avoid one.
And they have the right to seek political asylum – even if there are good grounds for believing that they may abuse it.
Am I thinking of anyone in particular? Of course I am. I don’t know Julian Assange, I have never had any dealings with Julian Assange, and I have absolutely no idea whether he is guilty of the computer hacking conspiracy charges that he faces in the US (you can read the full indictment here) or the sexual assault allegations that have been made against him in Sweden. I do know for a fact, however – don’t ask me how, just trust me on this – that I would not enjoy his company.
I also know, despite sharing the view of the judge who found him guilty of breaching his bail conditions that he is a narcissist, that he has exactly the same basic human rights as I do.
And that’s where the principles kick in.
Should he have been prepared to return to Sweden as requested by Swedish prosecutors who were investigating the serious sexual assault allegations that had been made against him? Of course he should.
Even if he was right in suspecting that he might then be subject to extradition proceedings brought by the US? Again, of course he should – as a supposedly principled whistle-blower, he should have been ready to defend his actions in court.
Just as Daniel Ellsberg did in 1971, when he faced charges under the Espionage Act after he leaked the top-secret Vietnam War Pentagon Papers. Despite facing a possible maximum sentence of 115 years in jail, Ellsberg surrendered to the authorities: “I felt that...as a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public. I did this clearly at my own jeopardy and I am prepared to answer to all the consequences of this decision.”
(The charges against him were eventually dismissed after evidence emerged of grotesque government malpractice and illegal FBI wiretapping.)
Like most journalists, I suspect, I was enthralled when the first WikiLeaks material emerged in 2010. True, much of the stuff revealed in the diplomatic cables was pretty humdrum stuff, but there were also some real nuggets. There were also some genuinely shocking disclosures about US actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So was WikiLeaks operating in 2010 in the public interest? My verdict is yes. Was Chelsea Manning, the US military intelligence analyst who provided the material? Again, I would say yes – with the caveat that the mainstream media organisations that published the material were right to comb through it to remove anything that could endanger lives.
Whether Assange and WikiLeaks later allowed themselves, knowingly or otherwise, to be used by Russian intelligence interests to help Donald Trump’s election campaign in 2016 (they published the hacked emails from the Hillary Clinton campaign, which had allegedly been stolen by Moscow) is irrelevant – at least for now – to the current legal proceedings against Assange.
It is interesting, however, to recall the enthusiasm with which Trump greeted the WikiLeaks Clinton disclosures at the time. According to the Washington Post, he praised the group more than a hundred times in the run-up to the election. In Pennsylvania, it was “Wikileaks? I love WikiLeaks.” In Michigan: “This WikiLeaks is like a treasure trove.” And in Ohio: “Boy, I love reading WikiLeaks.”
By yesterday, within hours of Assange’s arrest, the president had changed his tune. “I know nothing about WikiLeaks,” he said. “It’s not my thing.”
But before Assange faces a jury in Virginia, he will have to face a British court to argue against his extradition. So should he be extradited?
Well, he was granted political asylum by the Ecuadorians, so arguably they broke international law by inviting the British police to enter their London embassy and drag him out. And he is an Australian citizen, not an American, who, even if he did commit an offence under US law, was not under US jurisdiction at the time. So there’ll be plenty for the lawyers to argue about.
For me, as a journalist, the real question is this: if a source were to tell me that they had access to classified material that established clearly illegal government behaviour, would I encourage them – even help them – to get hold of it? Yes, I would.
Would I do everything I could to protect their identity? Again, yes.
And if necessary, would I be prepared to stand trial and argue my case, as Daniel Ellsberg did in 1971 and the British civil servant Clive Ponting did in 1985, after he leaked material to an MP about the sinking of an Argentine warship during the Falklands war? Again, yes. (Ponting, like Ellsberg, was acquitted.)
So I hope that in due course, Assange is not extradited to face trial in the US. But if he is, I hope he is acquitted. That way, justice would be done, and the freedom of the press to publish material that governments don’t want published would be upheld.
As a character says in Tom Stoppard’s play Night and Day: ‘No matter how imperfect things are, if you’ve got a free press everything is correctable, and without it everything is concealable.’